Book Review: The Art of War – Sun Tzu

“The supreme act of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” – Sun Tzu.

Fascinating book, more like a guide to perfection of war. War has been and still is the result of every conflict of humanity. It is quite amazing how advanced and way ahead of his time Sun Tzu was! To have a guide on how to defeat the enemy and for this guide to still be relevant in today’s day and age, that itself is an enormous advantage back in the day!

The book covers, most elegantly, the strategies that one ought to bear in mind for the destruction of the enemy. From the 9 different types of ground, using elements such as fire, earth, water and wind to your advantage, how to trick the enemy with spies (all warfare is based on deception), with perfect manoeuvres, the timely use of a bluff or feigning stupidity, the implementation of the utmost discipline to your soldiers and keeping them satisfied with rewards, the incredible importance that the commander-in-chief’s behaviour has on the army and on victory or defeat, how the mindset of your army changes everything, the use of birds for knowing if an enemy has occupied a certain region, if an army is doomed to certain death, their resolve with be maximum “when there is no escape, soldiers will prefer death to flight.”

Above all, rapidity – that is the essence of war. Taking advantage of the enemy’s unreadiness and making your way by unexpected routes, attacking undefended or less defended spots. Like the thunder which is heard before you have time to stop your ears against it. Plus, long delays and long wars is often associated with disaster, with the exhaustion of supplies and decay of the mindset of the solider.

The Art of War is a book attributed to Sun Tzu, who is revered as a legendary historical military figure, as well as a philosopher, and whose real name is Sun Wu. The name Sun Tzu is actually an honorary title meaning “Master Sun”.

Although the historicity of Sun Tzu is doubtable, and the book may very well have been a compilation of several scholars – we still have the privilege of possessing one of the first and most profound books ever written on strategy and war, whose principles are still used to this day due to the their importance.

The Art of War is not only concerned with modern warfare, but also spreads and influences the mindset of people in politics, games, and business.

It presents a sort of philosophy, a state of mind or psychology for managing conflicts and winning battles. It is closely tied to the philosophy of Taoism, which follows the Tao or “The Way”,  the principle of the universe to which everything is connected. It is about Yin and Yang, life and death, action and inaction – which is why the highest victory is one attained without engaging in a fight.

Main Takeaways

Chapter 1. Laying Plans

The soldier must be in complete accord with the ruler, regardless of life and death, undismayed by danger. The commander-in-chief’s behaviour can signify victory or defeat: he must be wise and benevolent, but also sincere and strict.

All warfare is based on deception. If an army is strong it must appear weak, if it is weak, it must appear strong. Feigning stupidity and the timely use of a bluff can greatly increase the chance of victory.

Success in warfare is gained by carefully accommodating to the enemy’s purpose.

“The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”

Chapter 2. Waging War

War must be swift. Rapidity is the essence of war. Long delays are associated with disaster, exhausting all the supplies, leading to hunger and the decay of the will to fight of an army.

Therefore, take advantage of the enemy’s unreadiness and make your way by unexpected routes, attacking undefended or weak spots. Like the thunder which is heard before the flash of a lightning bolt.

For this, the ruler must implement the utmost discipline, an iron will, into his soldiers and keep them satisfied with rewards, essential for the motivation of the army and for having a purpose of defeating the enemy.

Chapter 3. Attack by Stratagem

The skilful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting, and he captures their cities without laying siege to them. The enemy should be eliminated strategically, leaving the civilians and city untouched and the men will be rewarded with all the enemy’s supplies.

To win, you must know when to fight and when not to fight and how to handle both superior and inferior forces. Great results can be achieved with small forces.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you’ll succumb in every battle.

Chapter 4. Tactical dispositions

Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.

Chapter 5. Energy

In battle, there are no more than two methods of attack: the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of manoeuvres.

The direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory, attacking the enemy’s flank or rear.

Simulated disorder postulates perfect discipline; simulated fear postulates courage; simulated weakness postulates strength.

The energy developed by good fighting men is as the momentum of a round stone rolled down a mountain.

Chapter 6. Weak points and strong

By figuring out the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy, you can be sure of succeeding in your attacks.

Sun Tzu was no believer in frontal attacks, but rather in a combination of surprise tactics such as attacking the weak points of the enemy’s camp,  splitting up the enemy’s reinforcements as to weaken their strength in numbers, and luring him so as to find out his vulnerable spots.

In essence, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.

Chapter 7. Manoeuvring

The hardship of forced marches are often more painful than the dangers of battle. Fighting with an exhausted army is a sure way to defeat, therefore – they must be only used when intended for surprise attacks within short distances.

Attack the spirit of the enemy’s army while your army’s spirit is at its highest. This is an effective way to victory.  

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

One thing to mention is not interfere with an army that is returning home. For a man whose heart is set on returning home will fight to the death against any attempt to bar his way, making it too dangerous an opponent to tackle.

8. Variation of tactics

The wise leader considers both advantages and disadvantages and turning a disadvantage into an advantage.

If surrounded by enemies with the only objective of retreating, the adversary will pursue and crush the army. It would be far better to encourage the men to counter-attack and use the advantage thus gained to free them from the enemy’s toils.

The art of war teaches us not to rely on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him.

Sun Tzu explains that a general is not to be careless with the welfare of his troops, but rather to emphasise the danger of sacrificing any important military advantage to the immediate comfort of his men.

For there is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare. Therefore, the profession of arms requires a combination of hardness and tenderness.

Chapter 9. The army on the march

Be aware of your surroundings. If faced with mountains, do not climb heights in order to fight. After crossing a river, you should get far away from it and deliver your attack when half the army get across. If forced to fight in marshes, have water and grass near you and get your back where there are trees, for the ground is less likely to be treacherous.

The rising of birds in their flight is the sign of an enemy ambush beneath the spot. Startled beasts indicate that a sudden attack is coming. And at the same time, if birds gather on any spot, it is unoccupied. This is a useful fact to bear in mind when, for instance, the enemy has secretly abandoned their camp.

Chapter 10. Terrain

With respect to terrain, high and sunny places are advantageous not only for their strategic spot, but also because they are immune from disastrous floods.

If we know that our own men are in a condition to attack but are unaware that the enemy is not open to attack, we have only gone halfway towards victory.

If we know that the enemy is open to attack but are unaware that our own men are not in a condition to attack, we have only gone halfway towards victory.

And if we know that the enemy is open to attack, and also know that our men are in a condition to attack, but are unaware that the nature of the ground makes fighting impracticable, we have still gone only halfway towards victory.

Chapter 11. The nine situations

The art of war recognises different varieties of ground. One which is of great importance is contentious ground, that which if occupied, gives great advantage to either side. So, those in possession of it have the advantage in battle over the other side and victory will be assured.

In A.D. 532, Emperor Shen-Wu was surrounded by a great army, with his force being much smaller. Instead of trying to escape, he made orders to block all exits. As soon as his army saw that there was nothing for it but to conquer or die, their spirits rose to an extraordinary pitch of exaltation, charging with such ferocity that they defeated their enemy.

“Plunge your army into desperate straits and it will come off in safety, place it in a deadly peril and it will survive.”

In other words, throw your soldiers into positions from where there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight.

One of the most brilliant battles was carried out by general Han Xin of the Han dynasty in 204 BC. He detached two thousand horsemen from his army to hide in narrow passages, everyone carrying their flags. Then, he confronted the enemy with his men – while in battle, the horsemen made their move to the enemy’s base, tearing up their flags and replacing them with their own flags, when the enemy returned to their base, the sight of these flags struck them with terror. Convinced that their king had been overpowered, they broke up in wild disorder. Then from both sides, they were attacked and defeated.

The skilful tactician may be likened to the shuai-jan (a type of snake). To strike at its head and be attacked by its tail, to strike at its tail and be attacked by its head, to strike at the middle and be attacked by both head and tail.

Chapter 12. Attack by fire

Another important attack is using fire. The prime object of attacking with fire is to throw the enemy into confusion. When starting a fire near the enemy’s camp, it must be done so on the side facing the wind for it to spread faster.

Chapter 13. The use of spies

Espionage was a common practice, since what enables victory is foreknowledge. That is, knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions, and what he means to do.

However, it is impossible to obtain trustworthy spies unless they are properly paid for their expenses. Hence one must maintain an intimate relation with spies, more than the rest of the army. And none should be more rewarded than the spies, in order to keep the secrets, which have the power of gaining a quick and effective victory.

Spies can be obtained from your own men or your enemy’s men, offering them handsome rewards in return for valuable information. In this way, you will be able to find out the state of affairs in the enemy’s city. Thereby gaining knowledge of the enemy.

Spies are a most important element in war, because on them depends an army’s ability to move. An army without spies is like a man without ears or eyes.

The different measures suited to the varieties of ground, the expediency of aggressive or defensive tactics, and the fundamental laws of human nature, are of vital importance in the Art of War.

Sun Tzu ultimately emphasised the purpose of war to give way to peace and harmony within the society.

“In peace prepare for war, in war prepare for peace. The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence under no circumstances can it be neglected.” – Sun Tzu

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Art of War – Sun Tzu

  1. I found chapter 13 to be an interesting chapter as we generally think of spies in a negative light. But they can help win wars without the fighting. I have used that chapter to teach how empathy works as a “spy” to give us insight into the mind of others and allow us to see how we can help them.

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